The jack pine barrens are one of the most beautiful, unique landscapes I know. There’s gently rolling hills as far as you can see, with dips of kettles, those spots where glaciers paused, making depressions in the Earth. The green hills are dotted here and there with the scorched black skeletons of old jack pines–a constant reminder that the breathtakingly calm expanse holds a secret only fires can tell. If the pine barrens aren’t managed by burning, as the indigenous North American peoples once did, the trees will grow up, shading out and removing low-growing sweet fern, blueberries, and other similar plants. With the departure of those plants also goes the grouse, and the special ecosystem will eventually turn into jack pine forest.
When I first picked wild blueberries, Sam Thayer had invited me up to harvest with his family on one of their yearly outings in the barrens. I’ve learned lots of things from Sam, but seeing a new landscape I’d never thought of existing in the Midwest turned on a creative part of my brain that was laying dormant, and was the beginning of a new way to think about food for me.
I remember stepping out of the car and being hit first with a wall of scent, a strange aromatic was in the air I couldn’t put my finger on, but it was strong, like being close to a lilac shrub in flower, or catching the scent of fruit tree in bloom on the wind. But instead of a flowery scent, this was a rich, resinous aroma, like something Grandpa might wear as cologne with a longhorn steer on the bottle. Now, every time I open the car door and step out in the barrens, I look forward to smelling the beguiling scent of sweet fern.
“Alan! Look at all these food plants!” I remember Sam saying, gesturing to an oak tree thick with acorns. It was a midget tree, and only came up to my knee, another by-product of the fires that keep the tree cover down in the barrens, ensuring a prolific blueberry harvest. I was a little confused, I mean, I knew he was right, but I was ignorant of this new, alien landscape. I looked around, I didn’t see any food plants, I mean, sure, I love some acorn flour, but what else is there?
We waded through the sweet fern, and eventually, I saw a glimpse of what he meant. Tiny lowbush blueberry plants seemed to replace common grass in the barrens, they seemed to be a carpet as far as my eyes could see. Each of us found a decent spot to start picking, and we got to work. I learned a lot about wild blueberries that day, but it wasn’t until the next year, when I went to a new spot by myself, that the barrens truly spoke to me.
Not wanting to go to the same spot, I went to another area in an attempt to find my own patch (see above). What I found wasn’t that good. Instead of young barrens burned in recent years, I found older blueberry plants that were tall, bowing under the weight of berries they’d produced. As I picked, I noticed other things, too. The sweet fern was older, some of the plants were producing more nutlets (my favorite part to cook with) than I’d ever seen on shorter plants. There were serviceberry shrubs here and there too, about waist high, that I greedily picked and tossed right in with my wild blueberries.
Kneeling down in the carpet of sweetfern, scooping blueberries, plucking serviceberries, stopping here and there for the “victory handful” as I went, I noticed something else. On the peripheries of the barrens there were different clusters of plants I hadn’t seen yet. Going over to inspect them I found small shrubs, about the height of the midget oaks, with small fruits in light green cases all over. “What the?” “These are hazelnuts!” I thought.
I remember kneeling down excitedly, rolling a few of the odd-looking green involucres (a sort of modified leaf that covers the nuts) in my palm. I looked around, and really understood what Sam had said before: there were all kinds of food plants here. I remember just sitting in the sun for a while, eating handful after handful of berries, feeling something take shape in the aethers of my mind. I could feel the inspiration calling to me, as if the landscape itself had a message.
I was in a land of food plants, but they weren’t all the same type of plant. Specifically, there was 3 things: fruit, (blueberries and serviceberries) aromatics (sweetfern) and starches (hazelnuts, acorns). The more I thought of them, the less I saw a roll-call list of inhabitants and the more I saw them as the specific ingredients of a dish. Blueberries, serviceberries, hazelnuts, and an aromatic herb were ingredients any pastry chef would love to make into a dessert.
I’ve always enjoyed regional cuisine, but I’d never been to a place where all the ingredients were right there next to each other within a stones throw. As I sat there on my knees, the sun beating down, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the land: the midget trees, the ankle-high carpet of fruit, and the fluffy, aromatic sweetfern blowing in the breeze.
I don’t get overtaken with emotion often, but I could feel the tears well up as I tried to take it all in. The landscape I thought was odd and funny looking now seemed utterly unique, and perfectly designed by nature. The ingredients were all there, begging to be united, I just needed to figure out how they wanted to be put together.
Mulling it over on the drive home, I remembered an old 90’s cliche I used to make at an Italian restaurant back in the early 2000’s. The dish was a simple bowl of fruit drizzled with creme anglaise called the sottobosco (literally under-forest, fitting as the blueberries are ankle-high).
The dish couldn’t be easier, and is actually very good made with high quality in-season fruit. Unfortunately, most restaurants reach for the clamshells of Driscoll’s berries instead of tapping the farmers market, but, that’s nothing new.
Applying the sottobosco concept to the ingredients from the barrens was easy enough. The blueberries, and serviceberries, preferably never having seen a fridge, perfect just as they are, are tossed with a dash of lemon juice, then drizzled with a creme anglaise scented with sweetfern nutlets, and finally, sprinkled with crushed amaretti made from hazelnuts, a sort of textural contrast crowning glory. It’s been a few years since I first made it now, but it’s still just as good as the day I dreamt of it. I’ve since applied the to concept to a number of different places and dishes too, and the sky’s the limit to how your landscape could inspire you here.
In the end, I know now more than ever that one of the best ways to learn and appreciate a landscape, is to taste it.
Wild Blueberries with Sweetfern Sauce and Hazelnut Amaretti
- 4 cups fresh wild blueberries and serviceberries, preferably never having seen a refrigerator washed and cleaned, and picked over for stems, or a combination of fresh berries: raspberries, blueberries, groundcherries, etc, use your imagination
- 1 recipe sweet fern crème anglaise recipe follows
- 1 recipe hazelnut amaretti recipe follows
- Fresh lemon juice a few dashes to taste
- Crush the amaretti into pieces, assuming about 2 tablespoons per person (save some cookies to eat whole!).
- Toss the blueberries with the lemon juice, then divide the blueberries between 6 serving bowls drizzling each serving with 2 tablespoons of the sauce. Sprinkle the crushed amaretti over the top and serve.
Sweet Fern Crème Anglaise
- ¾ cup cream
- ¾ cup half and half
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- 1 Tablespoon finely ground dried sweet fern nutlets
- Tie the ground nutlets in a cheesecloth packet for easy removal. Heat the cream, half and half, and dried sweet fern nutlets until steaming and cool. When the sauce tastes pleasantly of sweetfern, discard the packet of nutlets.
- Meanwhile, bring the maple syrup to a boil and cook for two minutes, then pour into a mixing bowl and allow to cool for a few minutes.
- While the syrup is still warm, beat it with the egg yolks until light in color.
- Whisk 1/3 of the cream mixture into the egg yolk-maple mix, then whisk in the rest. Transfer the mixture back to a saucepan and cook on low heat, stirring constantly with a spoon, until the mixture barely coats the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes.
- It’s important to take your time cooking the crème anglaise, as if the heat gets too hot it will curdle the yolks and make the sauce chunky. Even if you do curdle the yolks though, you can strain it and it will be ok. Chill the sauce completely before serving to give it time to thicken. If you're in a pinch, stir it over a pan of ice.
Hazelnutties (Hazelnut Amaretti)
- 1.5 large egg whites
- ¾ cups sugar
- 1.5 cups hazelnut meal
- Pinch of finely ground salt
- Do your best to measure 1.5 egg whites, it’s not an exact science, It’s just hard to make small batches of these cookies as you don’t need a lot of moisture to hydrate the dough (you can also double the recipe and use 3 eggs).
- Mix all ingredients until a dough forms, then allow to rest for 15 minutes to hydrate.
- Preheat the oven to 300, and drop generous teaspoons of batter onto a baking sheet. Roll each teaspoon into an even ball, then bake for 25-30 minutes, or until lightly browned, then remove from the oven to cool.